15 day New Zealand South Island Trip Report

Mar 3rd, 2016, 07:58 PM
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Join Date: Mar 2004
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15 day New Zealand South Island Trip Report

My wife (Erica) and I recently finished a 15 day trip to the South Island and had an absolutely amazing time. First off, we live in Austin, TX, are both 45, active, love to travel and stay busy during our travels, love the outdoors, and visited New Zealand for our honeymoon 19 years ago. We've always wanted to return, and we finally did it thanks to my mom watching our 14 yo daughter and 9 yo son at home while they were still in school. I must say that this trip was really well planned and went off without a hitch, thanks to lots of research by both my wife and I, including help from several Fodorites (thank you!) and thanks to near perfect weather ... for the first 12 days, but I'll get to that later.

An obvious observation was how much the country had changed in 19 years, but also how much it had retained the character that we loved so much the first time. With a tourism trade built mostly around the beauty of the South Island's natural features, it's no surprise that this aspect still felt the same, and it instantly felt like we had just been there yesterday. That said, the number of tourists had grown exponentially (2015 was the first time NZ topped 3 million tourists compared to a total population of ~ 4.4 million, and rivals agriculture as the primary income source of NZ) and the tourism infrastructure, naturally, had grown with it. On our last trip, it was hard to find anything open on a Sunday or after 6pm on a weekday, even in Queenstown. This time, there was no such issue. Coinciding with Chinese New Year also made this time of year especially busy and crowded. That said, we had booked everything (accommodations and activities) in advance, so other than additional road traffic and more people everywhere, it didn't really negatively affect us. In talking with many of the locals, they also acknowledged that the increase in tourist traffic was both a blessing and a problem. Road traffic and accidents appeared to the be the main complaint about the increased tourism.

We flew from Austin to San Francisco to Auckland to Christchurch with no issues. As soon as we got off the plane in Auckland we got NZ Vodafone SIM cards for both of our phones and the girl working the booth had them both up and running within 5-10 minutes. We got the NZ$40 plan that included 3GB data, 200 minutes, and 200 texts. That was a bit of overkill but we wanted to be sure we didn't have to top off or pay overage charges at any point. We arrived in Christchurch at about 11am, picked up our Mazda3 (perfect size and style and power for us) from Hertz and headed to the Heritage Hotel in Cathedral Square. Another general note here, Google Maps trip times were very accurate everywhere we went. Despite the various weather and road conditions the estimated times were within 10-15 minutes of reality, though we tend to drive up at the speed limit at all times. The only exception was through Arthur's Pass where numerous road construction stops and heavy rain added about 20-30 minutes of delay. We had pre-purchased a South Island map just in case, but it never left the glovebox as Google Maps worked everywhere and didn't fail us.

The breakdown of the trip was as follows, with the longest drives being up to 4 hours (Christchurch to Mt. Cook, Mt. Cook to Queenstown, Wanaka to Franz Josef, Punakaiki to Christchurch), so it was all very manageable and I'm glad we structured it the way we did. All of the accommodations were perfect for what we needed/wanted, and we highly recommend all of them, especially the two B&Bs.

Christchurch - 3 nights at The Heritage Christchurch Hotel
4 hr drive
Mt. Cook - 1 night at the Aoraki Court Motel
3.5 hr drive
Queenstown - 2 nights at The Whistler
2.25 hr drive
Te Anau - 3 nights at The Croft B&B
3 hr drive
Wanaka - 2 nights at Criffel Peak View B&B
4 hr drive
Franz Josef - 2 nights at The Alpine Glacier Motel
3 hr drive
Hokitika - 1 night at Shining Star Chalets
4 hr drive
Christchurch - evening flight out

Day 1: Friday 2/5

The Heritage is in a beautiful ~ 100 year-old government building right behind the CC Cathedral and was undamaged by the 2011 earthquake. Unfortunately, most of the buildings around there were still boarded up or under construction. We didn't spend any time in CC on our last trip so I don't have a reference, but I imagine this was a once-bustling area of town that is now mostly dead. There was some light activity in the square on Saturday evening, but nothing to really take note of. We arrived early afternoon and found the room in the hotel to be a very spacious two-story with the bedroom and bathroom on the 2nd floor, and we used the convenient and inexpensive valet parking service offered by the hotel. After settling in, it was a short walk to the Botanical Gardens after viewing the still-damaged CC Cathedral (it is apparently still under discussion whether to and how to restore the church). The Gardens was an amazing place and a must-see if you are staying in CC. The whole garden was nicely laid out and the trees, both native and non-native, were fantastic in both size and appearance. The rose garden, with numerous different varieties was also very nice. From there we walked back in the direction of the hotel and found the Retart Mall, which is a little area amongst all of the new and lingering construction with food trucks/trailers and small shops. The food area was very reminiscent of Austin as Austin has been a pioneer of and heavy adopters of the food trailer industry. It's nice because you get a large variety of decent foods within a very small area, which works nicely if people feel like eating different things. We had some tasty Thai food and then walked back to the hotel for an early bed time.
Day 2: Saturday 2/6

We left the hotel around 9am for Kaikoura for our first booked tour of our trip - a Whale Watch Kaikoura boat cruise. The weather for the day was going to be in the 60s and partly cloudy, so we made sure we brought the appropriate layers. Knowing NZ South Island weather, this would repeat itself throughout the entire trip. We stopped at a grocery store outside of CC for snacks and water for the entire vacation. The drive was an easy ~ 2.5 hours with a few mountain twisties about 30 minutes outside of Kaikoura as you drive through the mountains to get to the coast, which is fantastic to see as you pop out from the mountain pass.

We got to the boat cruise terminal for our 1:15 cruise about an hour early, so we had lunch at their nice little cafe. The tour started about 15 minutes late, but it turned out to be really amazing with nice weather and a 2.5 hour cruise time. We saw three separate sperm whales and three pods of Dusky, Hector's and Common dolphins, all of which were very playful. Though we had seen humpback whales, minke whales, and orca on previous vacations, we had never seen sperm whales so this was very special, and they gave us some nice diving fluke pictures and videos. The boat was in newish condition with very comfortable seats (most comfortable boat cruise seats we'd ever experienced) and an upbeat and energetic tour guide (she was a 20-something ex-IT professional from Hong Kong that decided to make a life change, probably like so many new immigrants to NZ) and a captain that really knew how to find the whales at the perfect time ... they are pros. We picked this tour for this very reason.

After the tour, we drove to the trailhead of the Kaikoura Peninsula Track at the Point Kean car park and walked about 1.5 hours to Whaler's Bay and back. The entire loop would have taken 3-4 hours, but we didn't have that much time since we still had to drive back to CC. The walk is very easy with gorgeous cliff-side views of the ocean and beaches. At Whaler's Bay we descended to the shore from the cliff and climbed the 'the Sugarloaf,' a prominent rock feature in the middle of the bay. On the drive back to the highway, we stopped at Meke's Mussels food trailer on the peninsula for dinner as it was highly rated on several websites. I had the green-lipped mussels and my wife had the fish and chips, both of which were very good, and perhaps the best mussels and fish and chips that we would have on the entire trip. The mussels were so big that they had to be cut in half, and the fish had a panko breading instead of the standard batter, which made it less greasy. Hats off to this little trailer! We then headed back to CC and got to the hotel in 2.5 hours. We deemed this road trip very much worth it.

Day 3: Sunday 2/7

Another road trip day. We left for the Banks Peninsula and Akaroa around 9:30am and arrived at ~ 11am. The drive was very fun with lots of mountain twisties on narrow roads (Highway 75 up to Hilltop past The Summit Road), but many of the great views were obscured by fog and low clouds. It was cold and rainy when we left, then cool (60s) and overcast the rest of the day, so not the best weather, but we were never wet. We grabbed lunch at the famous Akaroa Fish and Chips restaurant, and the meals were ridiculously huge ... we easily could have shared one meal, so we ended up taking some to go, and it kept fine in the car given the cool weather. We walked around town through the shops and along the shore before going to The Giants' House. For $20/person, we saw one of the coolest houses on the planet. The entire yard has been turned into a mosaic tile garden by the artist owner of the historic house. The individual pieces (life-size and larger) were amazing on their own, and combined together they made for a magical adventure. This is a MUST SEE if in CC and Akaroa.

We then decided to get some more scenic driving in so we headed back up into the mountains and headed to Okains Bay on the other side of the Peninsula. The drive was crazy fun on a road barely two lanes wide with lots of switchbacks ... luckily there was very little traffic so it was not so dangerous. My windshield-mounted GoPro captured some fun driving. When we arrived we visited the quirky Okains Bay Museum, which had a very large and interesting collection of Maori and NZ pioneer objects, though the museum itself was not a fancy one, meaning that a lot of the displays were older or unkempt or not well organized. But it was still worth a visit in this small town. We then visited the campgrounds and the beach at the end of the bay, which seemed to be the biggest attractions in this very isolated part of the Peninsula. We then drove back up to The Summit Road and out on 75, where we stopped at a local farm and bought some nectarines and apricots for future picnics. We got back to the Heritage hotel around 7pm and ate our leftovers for dinner and called it an early night.

Day 4: Monday 2/8

We left The Heritage at 8am en route to Mt. Cook in a foggy drizzle and stopped at a grocery store in Ashburton for food, as the supplies we bought here and at later grocery store stops will be for our numerous picnic lunches on the trip. Our meal schedule, with some exceptions, tended to be to eat the provided hotel/motel/B&B breakfasts, or simple grocery store breakfast foods if the accommodations didn't provide any, then have picnic lunches on the road, and then restaurants for dinner. This turned out to be a good combination of sampling the local foods, enjoying some relaxing outdoor picnics, and saving time for the important stuff (in our opinion) without breaking the bank or the beltline. We stopped at the Lake Pukaki visitor center after ~ 3 hours and had a picnic on the lakefront in beautiful mid 70s sunny weather. We hung out here for a bit to enjoy the view of the bright blue lake and Mt. Cook in the background.

We then drove up to Mt. Cook and arrived around 1:30pm at the Aoraki Court Motel. This motel was nicely situated right at the entrance to the Mt. Cook village and the room was sufficient (large and clean) for what we needed for one night. After getting settled, we drove to the White Horse Hill campground to find the Hooker Valley Track trailhead and started on the popular hike at 2:30pm. It took about 3 hrs roundtrip to Hooker Glacier Lake and amazingly clear views of Mt. Cook. We got very lucky with the weather as some people were even swimming in the lake, but it was too cold for these Texas bones. We then immediately did the Kea Point Walk from the same starting point for a nice view of the Mueller Glacier moraine and a slightly different angle view of Mt. Cook, which took about 1 hr roundtrip. We were starving at this point so we headed to the Chamois Grill, where the food was just OK, but good enough for post-hiking refill, and the sunset view of Mt. Cook was a good finish to the evening.

Day 5: Tuesday 2/9

We left Mt. Cook at 8:45am for the 3.5 hr drive to Queenstown. Weather again was clear and warm, with afternoon high temps ending up in the 80s. On the way we stopped in Tarras at the merino wool shop and home of Shrek, the semi-famous (or World's Most Famous, as they claim) sheep that escaped his owner and lived in the wild for about 5 years before being recovered with a massive coat. It's a cute story and one that my wife thoroughly enjoyed. The kids thoroughly enjoyed the Shrek postcard we sent them, too. We then stopped in Cromwell at the Benjer fruit juice factory where the lady in the store went out of her way to tell us all about their juicing process and the different flavors of juice they offer. After a taste testing, we bought a few bottles of juice that were very tasty. We also stopped at a large fruit stand in Cromwell, where all the tour buses were stopping, too, and bought a bag of monster-sized cherries. We were looking for kiwis as well, but didn't realize that they were not in season, so all Kiwis in NZ at this time were from Italy.

We got to QT around 1pm and had a picnic lunch by a stream next to the library, which was across the Gorge Road from our motel. Having some more time before we could check into the motel, we walked the main strip of shops and restaurants, which was only a few minutes from our motel, before heading back to check in at The Whistler. The owner, Wayne, was extremely friendly and helpful, and he gave us a full walk-through of the suite and gave us recommendations on things to do in the area since we decided not to book any activities in QT. We already had plans for what to do, but he confirmed those plans and gave us extra ideas as well. We couldn't have been happier with the location of the motel (minutes from the strip and from a large Fresh Choice grocery store), the friendly staff, and the spacious and very clean suite rooms ... highly recommended.

So off we went on the 45 minute drive to Glenorchy, which was a very pretty drive. We checked out the very small town, had ice cream at the Glenorchy Lodge, and checked out the beach before heading off on the 1.5 hr Glenorchy Lagoon Walk. We did the walk clockwise, and halfway through were wondering if it was going to get any better, because it was quite an uninteresting walk at that point. However, then we got around to the back side of the loop and hit the lagoon which was filled with dozens or even hundreds of black swans, so this was a pretty unique experience. We hung out on a boardwalk and lookout point for a while just observing the swans. We came back to a town that was almost completely shut down already at 6pm, so we had dinner back at the Glenorchy Lodge since they seemed to be one of two places still open for dinner. We shared a burger and fries, which was a wise choice because the burger was enormous! We decided to head back to QT at this point because there wasn't much left to do there, though in hind sight I wish we had driven a bit further to Paradise to see the views. We spent some more time walking around the dock area in QT with all of the tourist activity before calling it a night.

Day 6: Wednesday 2/10

Weather again turned out to be beautiful with afternoon temps predicted in the mid 70s and sunny (weather.com app was pretty much spot on the entire trip). At 9am, we drove to the QT Hill trailhead to start a morning hike. This hike was recommended by Wayne, and we were not disappointed. Even though the trailhead was only a few blocks behind our motel, the few blocks were nearly straight uphill, so we decided to drive there rather than make the hike even more difficult. We hiked the loop in about 2 hrs all the way to the top of the lookout, with amazing views of QT and Lake Wakatipu. The peak lookout was actually higher than the gondola lookout point. We did the look clockwise, which made it super steep, rocky, and exposed on the way up, and more gradual through a beautiful forest on the way down, so this was the proper direction to do the hike. Our legs got a great workout on this hike (calves were burning) ... it's not for the unfit.

After getting to the car, we drove up to the Coronet Peak ski area for a picnic lunch, but this was very disappointing as there was nothing up there but some construction and hang gliders, not even a picnic table to eat on. So we watched the hang gliders launch for a few minutes and then headed back down. Luckily it wasn't too long of an excursion. Unlike in the US and Europe, it seems most of the ski areas in NZ are not that interesting outside of the ski season. So we drove to the Arthur's Point Bridge over the Shotover River and had our picnic lunch on the banks of the river while watching the Shotover Jet boats run in and out of the canyon. We had done a jet boat ride on our previous trip to NZ and decided not to do one this time, but it was fun to watch from the shore nonetheless.

We then drove to Arrowtown, parked near the end of town near the Chinese Settlement, and explored the settlement before heading into town. The history of the settlement was interesting, especially for Erica being from Hong Kong, and so it was a nice change of perspective on the early history of NZ. We then walked up into town, had ice cream at Patagonia Chocolates, and did some souvenir shopping along the main street. We then spent about 2 hrs in the Lakes District Museum. Though relatively small, it had a very well put together, displayed, and documented history of Arrowtown ... definitely worth the $10/person. After a bit more exploring in town, we headed to the Kawarau Bridge, the site of the first ever bungee jump, and a place that we had come to on our first trip. We were just a bit late (6pm) for bungee jumping, and apparently they weren't doing night jumping that night, but we did get to see some people ziplining on the new contraption that was not there on our previous trip. We spent some time walking on the bridge and getting pictures before heading back to QT for dinner. We had a decent dinner (split a full rack of pork ribs) at Flames Bar and Grill and then walked to the nearby Fresh Choice grocery to stock up on food and supplies.

Day 7: Thursday 2/11

We left for Te Anau at 9am with a 2:15 projected drive time. Officially pronounced more like Tay AH-no, all of the locals seem to pronounce it Tee AH-new or other variants starting with Tee, so we had some funny discussions with the locals about that. It was finally concluded and admitted that most South Island New Zealanders don't know how to pronounce Maori words very well. It's not unlike many local mis-pronunciations of ethnic words that happen all over the world. On the way we stopped in Garston at the Hunny Shop to buy some honey. We had already been seeing Manuka honey all over the place, but hadn't had a chance to learn about it until we found this shop. It's a great local shop that sells their own brand of locally-farmed honey, including manuka, and we got a great lesson on the different types of honey and the grading system used for the manuka honey that sometimes made it cost up to $200 for 250-500 grams. That's some expensive bee vomit! We ended up buying the local thyme honey for my mom on this stop.

Arriving in Te Anau around noon, we had a picnic lunch on the shore of Lake Te Anau (notice the trend yet?) before exploring the Visitor Center nearby to get all of our local hiking trail information. We checked in at The Croft B&B a few minutes outside of town on the road to Milford Sound. Although this B&B was a short drive from town, we highly recommend this place if you are looking for a quaint B&B with a really nice cottage (we rented the Blue Cottage and they also have the Green Cottage, both of which are separate from the owners' house). The owners, Jane and Ross, are two of the nicest people in the world, and made us feel very much at home. They are natives of the South Island and have seen 50+ years of change, so they were very interesting to talk to. Ross is a home builder and hand built the cottages to perfection. They also run a sheep farm (we asked them how they had so much time for all of these businesses), so we were able to walk through the sheep pens and get up close and personal to their herd.

After settling in and walking down to the lake through their sheep pens, while scaring the sheep into all corners of the large pen, we headed to town for some shopping and to see a locally-made movie (Ata Whenua - Shadowland) at the Fiordland Cinema. The movie contained gorgeous aerial shots of the Fiordlands from award winning cinematographers, but without any commentary at all, it was more of an art piece than an educational piece, and I guess we were looking for more of an education at that point. We don't highly recommend it (again, it was nice) unless you are looking to kill some time or won't get a chance to see the Fiordlands yourselves, but it was supporting a local film-maker and business, so no harm done. We walked down to Miles Better Pies and had a very tasty Steak and Pepper pie before setting a 9pm reservation for dinner at Kepler's. We then walked down to the lake past the Visitor Center and on to the wildlife (bird) sanctuary, which was about a 15min walk from the Visitor Center. It also has a parking lot on highway 95 if you want to drive there. It was a bit underwhelming and not well maintained, but it was free and we did get to see some kaka and takahe birds up close, so that was cool. We finished the evening with our nice dinner, green-lipped mussels and cod two-ways, at Kepler's.

Day 8: Friday 2/12

We had a 9:45 Milford Sound Discover More cruise pre-booked with Southern Discoveries so the plan was to drive straight there first thing in the morning and then take our time coming back and exploring. This was the perfect plan because doing it in the opposite way would still have meant that we had to time all of our Milford Road activities to get to the Sound in time. After eating a nice breakfast at The Croft with Jane and Ross, we set out for the Sound (fjord) at 7:15 and got there in 1:45 without issues. It was cloudy most of the day but did not rain a drop so we were very lucky. The cruise was very nice, lasting about 2.5 hours and providing a very large sack lunch, and the scenery was impressive, of course, with the super steep walls that plunge into the ocean and allow for close cruising of the walls. This smaller Southern Discoveries boat was able to pull up to two large waterfalls, one to mist us and one to fill a tray of glasses on the bow of the boat with water so that we could drink fresh waterfall water. It tasted great! We didn't see any dolphins, and only a few seals, but the main draw was the sound itself anyway so we weren't disappointed. After all we had already gotten a good fill of sea life in Kaikoura.

The cruise ended up at the Discovery Center underwater observatory, which was neat to see all of the different types of sea life, including their famed black coral, just below the surface. Our Norwegian guide in the observatory joked about how not only were the Sounds misnamed by the early explorers (sounds are created by rivers, fjords by glaciers), but the attempt to make up for it by naming the national park failed when they misspelled fjord as fiord. After returning to the dock, we ate our lunch at a picnic table among the sand flies and then took the 20 min Foreshore Walk around the river delta from the car park. We wanted to leave as much time to explore along the road on the way back, so we left the town immediately after that and headed back.

We first stopped at The Chasm, which was a very short walk to see nice rock and canyon features from the walkways above them. Little did we know that this would be a preview of the canyons to come on our canyoning trip in Wanaka. Next we pulled off on the Hollyford Road and took the gravel road 18km to the end for the start of the Humboldt Falls walk. The road was very narrow in places, and mostly contained within forest which obscured the dust clouds from other vehicles, so some care had to be taken driving this stretch. At the end was a swing bridge and a relatively easy 30 min walk to a very impressively tall, multi-level fall. After that we doubled back on the gravel road and stopped at the Lake Marian trailhead.

We read that this was a fairly steep trail with moderate difficulty after the 15min walk to the cascading falls, but we were not quite prepared for how difficult that 3-3.5hr round trip hike was. It was steep the entire way over rocks, roots, and through mud and beautiful rainforest and was one a very challenging short hike, and my bad knee reminded me of that by the time we got to the top. But it was well worth it as the alpine Lake Marian at the top was very tranquil and picture perfect, like many alpine lakes are. Unfortunately low cloud cover obscured the impressive mountain peaks that we had seen in pictures, but the ceiling of clouds also make for a pretty setting. We rested for quite a while at the lake before heading down, but my knee was screaming at me by the time we made it back to the car - definitely not a hike for the unfit or injured. That would mean no more tough hikes for me today, but the timing was such that we wouldn't be able to fit anymore in regardless, and tomorrow would be a rest day at Doubtful Sound. We then drove to Mirror Lakes where the mountain reflections and diving ducks were nice. It was now after 8pm, so we drove back to Te Anau and had good pizza at Ristorante Pizzeria De Toni before calling it a night.

Day 9: Sat 2/13

Jane and Ross got the opportunity to go visit their daughter in Dunedin that day, so they prepared and left a breakfast for us as they were heading out on their road trip very early. We had a 10am Doubtful Sound cruise with Go Orange, which is basically a subsidiary of Real Journeys, so we left for Manapouri after 9am and got there by 9:45. The boat trip across Lake Manapouri was a Real Journeys boat. We sat up top for the entire trip because we had no interest in missing any of the scenery. The morning was very overcast until we reached West Arm on the other side of the lake, so the tops of the surrounding mountains were obscured (but that would change for the return trip, fortunately). About 2/3rds of the way across the lake, one of the boat's engines failed. The captain said they'd run on one remaining engine to get us to the end, but shortly after there was a loud screeching noise from the engine and we came to a stop for a bit. The strain on the second engine was too great, so we had to run at close to idle for the remainder of the trip, which added about 45 minutes to the 50 minute trip. It became a bit of a joke among all of the passengers, talking about which island or shore we would swim to when it eventually sank ... even the tour guide had fun with the situation, so no one felt inconvenienced or worried at all.

The next cruise boat past us right as we were coming up on the dock , but the cruise companies made some adjustments in the bus and cruise schedules so that everyone got where they needed to be without too much inconvenience ... all in all it was a situation well handled. All that said, the glacier-formed lake was beautiful, and the history of the West Arm power plant was interesting as well. It is large enough to power the entire South Island, but 85% of its output is used to power an aluminum smelting plan, so it is not without its own controversy. The bus trip over to Doubtful Sound was mostly uneventful, with one stop at the very nice scenic lookout straight down the Sound. As we boarded the Go Orange boat, the weather was beautiful with sunny clear skies now.

We spent the entire cruise outside (again) enjoying the beautiful scenery and many waterfalls. We didn't see any dolphins on the 3 hour cruise, as previous cruises that morning had reported seeing, but we did get to go out to the seal islands at the edge of the Tasman Sea, since the seas were relatively calm that day, where dozens of seals of all sizes were enjoying the sun. Compared to Milford Sound, the walls were not as steep and the voyage was much rougher and windier as Doubtful is not shielded from the Tasman Sea as well as Milford, but it was interesting to see them both. If you only have time for only one, I'd probably recommend Milford Sound, but fortunately we had time for both so it was a non-issue.

After the cruise and bus trip back to West Arm, we had time to enjoy the visitor center for about 30 minutes before heading back across the lake. This time there were no engine issues despite taking the same boat back. They had done some quick repairs as all of the tools and removed engine components were stacked up on the top deck where we were sitting. The scenery was dramatically improved on the sunny return trip, so we were able to appreciate the immenseness and beauty of Lake Manapouri this time. We returned to Te Anau around 6pm, 9 hours later, and had another fish n chip dinner at Mainly Seafood (quick, convenient, and cheap) in town and called it an early night after a long day on the water.

Day 10: Sun 2/14

We left Te Anau around 9am for the 3 hour drive to Wanaka after visiting with Jane's pet sheep that she raised from a newborn after the mom couldn't take care of all three triplets. It was the only sheep we could get to come to us, so Erica was happy. We stopped back at the Hunny Shop in Garston to buy some Manuka honey as we determined we couldn't leave NZ without some, and this shop had the most reasonably priced product. The Crown Range Road to Wanaka was fun to drive but we didn't take much time at the scenic overlooks as we wanted as much time in Wanaka as possible, and we arrived around 1pm. Lunch was one of our now-standard picnic lunches on the beach of Lake Wanaka (Lake + lunchtime = picnic) right on the main road. After a stroll on the beach, still not willing to put a toe in the frigid NZ water, we checked out a craft market in the park, where local artisans and vendors were selling their goods.

It was now 3pm and time to check into our B&B, so we drove a few minutes back up the main road to The Criffel Peak View B&B, where owner Caroline greeted us with much energy and excitement. Caroline and her partner Suzie, transplants from England about 20 years ago, were extremely friendly, talkative, and helpful with recommendations. We had a great time sharing stories about our travel experiences, both in NZ and elsewhere, and their experiences with other guests and local happenings. They were very familiar with Austin, TX as the home of Lance Armstrong and Matthew McConaughey, which we found amusing. The B&B was a spacious house with three bedrooms occupied by three couples sharing the common room, kitchen and dining room. We crossed with two couples from Germany and one from China while we were there, and had good travel conversations with all of them. This B&B run by these two delightful ladies is highly recommended.

We were looking for something to do the rest of the afternoon and evening, and Caroline seconded the recommendation we had from Jane and Ross to hike up to the Rob Roy Glacier at the end of the Mount Aspiring road up the Matukituki Valley, the last 30km of which is semi-wash boarded gravel road ending at the Raspberry Flat car park. The payoff for the 45 minute drive (some people take 1 hour, but it's best to take this semi-rough road at higher speed - our canyoning guide the following day would laughingly agree with us as he overtook cautious tourists puttering along) and 3.5 hour round trip hike was incredible. The views at the Lower and especially the Upper Lookouts were amazing, with close up views of the glacier face and numerous large waterfalls pouring off of the cliffs and cascading down the rocks. This moderate difficulty hike is an absolute must-do in Wanaka with some of the best views in NZ on a relatively short walk. We got back into town around 9pm and had dinner at Boa Boa Food Company as it seemed quick, hip, and reasonably priced. Apparently it was started by a Top Chef New Zealand winner (or participant, I didn't confirm) and had a decent reputation. I decided to go for my first lamb dish in NZ so got the pulled lamb shoulder wrap, and Erica got (you guessed it) fish n chips. My wrap was very good and reminded me of the large hand-held burritos we get back home, and the fish n chips were pretty decent as well.

Day 11: Mon 2/15

We had pre-booked The Big Nige canyoning trip with Deep Canyon tours, the only canyoning company in Wanaka so far. We had no idea what to expect beyond the promotional videos they show on their website as neither one of us had been canyoning before. But let me say that this was the single most exciting thing we did on this trip and one of the most fun things we've ever done. It is well worth the ~ $300/person price if you have an adventurous bone in your body. Suzie fixed a nice breakfast for us (standard for NZ B&B it seems, with yoghurt, fresh fruit, granola, toast, eggs, bacon, etc.) before our tour guide, Chris, picked us up in the company van at 9am. These canyoning tours take a lot of personal attention and instruction from the guides, so they limit the group size to 4 or 5, which is nice. We were paired with a very nice, young German couple (early 20s, just graduated from university) who were working for 6 months in NZ at odd jobs before moving on to their next destination somewhere in SE Asia (oh, to be young again).

The start of the trip was along the same gravel road on the way to Rob Roy glacier, so the terrain was already familiar. The Niger stream plummeted down a hillside, cutting the canyon, on a rancher's private property, so Deep Canyon had an arrangement with him to set up operations on his property and use his canyon. We gathered our wet suits and other equipment (including old donated sneakers, which amusing for everyone on the tour) at the bottom of the canyon and started the hike up to the top. This was a bit more challenging than I had expected, as the hill was quite steep and in some areas there were only loose footholds on which to step and push yourself upwards. After we got to the top, Chris, a young laid-back Kiwi, typical of many adventure guides bouncing from summer job to winter job around the country, helped us getting our gear on. This was more difficult than it sounds, as the two-piece wet suits were extremely snug, and needed to be for the 50F water temperature.

We then got about 5 minutes of instruction on how to abseil (or rappel) on the hillside and some other key safety instructions. At first I thought it was very minimal instruction for people who had never done this before, but they know what they are doing and you find that much of it is mind-over-body and that you learn as you go. They don't really do anything that puts you in harm's way, unless you are just being really stupid and reckless. The drop into the canyon was our first real practice rappelling, and although it was steeper than the practice hill, it was just on grippy dirt and rock so it was no problem. But a few short minutes later, we were doing a 20m vertical rappel into a water fall in our first 'wtf' moment. The rappel actually took you into the water fall, where the water pounded your head and body as you tried to make it down as quickly as possible without being able to see much. It was very nerve-racking at first, but you quickly found yourself wanting to tackle the next challenge to see how you would do.

The entire trip down the canyon took about 4.5 hours, and it included more than 10 rappels, several jumps, and numerous slides through beautiful rock formations and pristine mountain water (we drank from the falls on numerous occasions). The highest jump of 7+ meters was no problem for me, but Erica struggled with it a bit because it wasn't a straight jump off of a ledge into a pool. It was off of a waterfall that with sloped rock faces, so you had to take a big step to the right on a sloped face and push off so that you could get out far enough to hit the deep pool. She had trouble with this, and after about 15 minutes of debate and negotiation with the guide, she stepped the wrong way onto some algae near the water fall, slipped onto her butt, and slid down the rock face into pool below. It was a bit shocking to witness at first, but then it turned into the funniest and most talked about part of the trip. The guide, who was videoing everyone's jump, was so stunned at the way she went down that he failed to move the camera on to her, so all you see is her slipping out of view of the video and disappearing. I'm giggling right now at writing this and reliving again because it really did become a comical story to tell, over and over and over again. She was not injured, and was in fact quite proud of the fact that she found a legitimate alternate route down for those that didn't care to jump. Hahahaha. Making our way down the canyon in all various means, following Chris' instructions, helping each other, sharing in each others' fears and joys was a really amazing experience.

The trip ended with a nice fresh vegi, cheese and fruit lunch at the bottom with the guides and one other tour group that did the shorter canyoning trip on the same creek. For only $15, we got a memory stick full of hundreds of pictures and videos that the guide took (we were not allowed to bring our own handheld cameras, though GoPros were allowed, but I forgot to bring my helmet mount for my GoPro), which was a really good deal. After getting back to the B&B around 5pm, we cleaned up, rested for a bit, looked at the pictures and videos, and shared our trip stories with Caroline and Suzie. They have never been canyoning but they want to do it as they get so many rave reviews of it. At 8:30pm we finally got around to getting back out for dinner but we ended up back at Boa Boa for a quick dinner again.

Day 12: Tues 2/16

We had intended to leave Wanaka at 9am as the trip to the West Coast was one of the longer ones on our vacation, but we found that our car had a flat tire. It was a slow leak, probably from the gravel road two days earlier, so I was able to pump it up enough with Caroline's bike tire pump to get it to Tyreland, where they were able to repair it in about an hour. So we were off by 11am on our ~ 4 hour drive to Franz Josef. We arrived there by 5pm after stopping at Blue Pools (short walk to nice deep clear blue waters), Fantail Falls (decent falls, but the real attraction was the hundreds or perhaps thousands of hikers cairns erected in the river bed in front of the falls), Thundercreek Falls (a very nice, tall fall), and Ship Creek beach (where we did the dune lake walk and strolled on the beach for a bit). This was a beach we had been to 19 years ago so we recreated some pictures sitting on drift wood, and I was convinced that some of the driftwood was the same as when we were there before.

The drive was very pleasant, though it had started raining on and off all day, and traffic through Haast Pass was some of the heaviest we had seen on the entire trip. Some of this was exacerbated by the large numbers of cyclists that were riding on these narrow, winding mountain roads in the rain no less. I know this is a popular past time, and I am an avid road cyclist myself, but to me these people are a bit crazy. I'm surprised there are not more cycling deaths here, but maybe there are and we just didn't hear about them. In Franz Josef, we checked into our convenient and perfectly decent, though unspectacular, Alpine Glacier Motel and then checked out all of the shops before they closed. We grabbed dinner at the Snakebite Brewery (formerly something like 88 Asian Bistro before burning down) and we enjoyed our Asian noodle and Korean spare rib dishes.

At this point we knew that rain was projected for the next several days; however, we had no idea how persistent the rain would really be (more on that later). Coming into this trip, this is the only leg that we didn't pre-book the activity that we wanted to do (heli-hiking on Franz Josef) because we knew it was subject to rain-out and we didn't want to commit until we got closer to the day. With the high threat of rain, we knew that any chance of a heli-hike was pretty much shot, but we figured we'd still be able to do the hikes up to and around both glaciers ... boy were we wrong. At this point we decided to spend the evening walking to the face of Franz Josef and then we figured we'd find the openings in the weather tomorrow to do Fox and Lake Matheson. Had we known how severe the rain would be, we would have hit Fox Glacier on the drive up to Franz Josef and then still Franz Josef later that evening. Anyway, we had a very nice evening walk up to Franz Josef with almost no one else around at 8-9pm. We were still pleasantly surprised by how nice the walk was with all of the waterfalls and how close we got to the face (750m away, the furthest up the trail has been built). Sometime in the middle of the night, Armageddon broke loose and made quite a racket in the motel.

Day 13: Wed, 2/17

We woke up to a torrential downpour. We checked the weather forecast and it was ~ 100% chance of rain for the next 72 hours ... sigh. Knowing this, we just decided that we had to see what we wanted to see or we'd miss out, so we headed down to Fox Glacier with our rain jackets and picnic lunch in hand. But first we grabbed some monster donuts at Picnics Bakery for breakfast right around the corner from our motel, and we ate them in the car due to the constant rain (you'll notice a theme here). The drive was in heavy rain, but was interesting as all of the cliff sides were gushing waterfalls and the rivers and creeks were raging at high, muddy levels. Up to now the rain jackets were plenty sufficient for what little rain we encountered, but these next couple of days would require rain pants and rubber shoes, neither of which we had, as the rain was constant, heavy, and sometimes horizontal with the high winds that accompanied it.

We got to the Fox Glacier access car park, but the trail was completely shut down due to flooding and erosion. After waiting in the car for a bit for a break in the rain, which never came, we walked up to the restroom building right at the start of the trail. The river was a raging torrent of muddy water and you could see where the trail had already been washed away. There was a man in shorts and sandals and a poncho (an Aussie for sure ) walking in the closed off area where the trail used to be and making his way back up to the car park ... clearly he had ventured past the barrier to get closer. A parks employee, who later would start on some car park repair work for some hopeless reason, arrived at the same time we did to wait for this guy to come back up. After he did, he got a tongue lashing from the parks employee but nothing else ... we were hoping he'd get busted for at least a fine. A couple of tour buses would pull up and let the few most daring people out to run up to the barrier or the restrooms where we were, only to pull out a few minutes later after everyone dashed back inside. When the rain got completely horizontal with the ground, we retreated back to the car and had our picnic lunch inside.

With no hope to see anything else here, we decided to do the Lake Matheson walk even though we knew we'd get soaked and not get the classic mirror reflections in the water. When we got to the lake, it had actually calmed down to a drizzle so we had hope, but first we explored the gift shop and read the educational signage outside. We did get to complete the first half of the walk in the drizzle, but the downpour started up again and we ended up the 1.5 hour walk soaked from waist to toe (our rain jackets still held out), but laughing about it with some great pictures of two soggy Texans. Despite our drippiness, we sat in the cafe for a while and had some dessert. Next we went back to the hotel to get cleaned up and dried off before heading out for dinner. We walked around the entire town during a break in the rain and ended up at Alice May's restaurant, which was a quaint little restaurant with a definite European country farmhouse feel to it, and where we enjoyed our bangers and mash and venison burger.

Down at the end of the street we found the glacier hot pools and decided that would be a great way to end the cold and soggy day, so we walked back to the motel to get our swimsuits and towels. We arrived at 7pm and got the Basic package ($26/person), which gave access to the 3 public hot pools for 90 minutes. They closed at 9pm so we basically got to stay until close. The public pools were not quite as unique (concrete and stone pools) or quiet (several families with small kids were there) as we were imagining, but they were large enough that you could find a bit of privacy and relaxing in the 36C (97F), 38C (100F), and 40C (104F) heated glacier water pools was just what the doctor ordered for that day, so it was all good.

Day 14: Thurs 2/18

With another full day of rain in the forecast, we headed off for Hokitika at 9am with our fingers crossed. As we got to Hokitika, the weather had cleared a bit, so we made a short stop at the visitor center and decided to drive straight to the Punakaiki Pancake Rocks in hopes of the weather staying clear for our visit there. The full drive from Franz Josef was about 3 hours, so with the stop in Hokitika we arrived around 12:30pm. Low tide today was at 2:30pm, so the timing didn't work out well for the blow holes, but we still got very nice viewing of the rocks and wild ocean that was still brewing from the past two days of storms. I imagine high tide on this day produced some pretty nice blowhole action with the extra strong Westerlies blowing. After checking out the visitor center, we had our standard picnic lunch on the picnic table outside before driving back to Hokitika.

It rained the entire way back and for several hours after we got back. The Shining Star beachfront chalet that we rented was very nice (large, clean, private, great view, great location) and is highly recommended ... I'm sure it's quite nice in better weather. After settling in, we headed into town around 4pm and hit all of the shops before they started closing around 5pm. Dinner plans were for Fat Pipi's Pizza at the end of the main road, so we headed that direction but first stopped by the Hokitika beach where the driftwood art from the previous week's festival was still intact. It started to poor again so we quickly made our way to the restaurant. The pizza at Fat Pipi's was good, but luckily we got there before the big crowds because service was a bit slow with only one small oven cranking out a lot of pizza.

We headed back to the motel after dinner and went straight to the beach (a 2 minute walk from our unit) to enjoy the wind, rain, and most of all, the sea foam. There was so much sea foam collected at this one run-off inlet that we could have gone swimming in it and never touched water. In fact, there was a family there with two small children and the kids were having a blast getting covered in it. We've never had so much fun standing there watching a foam-covered beach jiggle in the wind and chunks of foam blowing further inland like tumbleweed after each heavy gust of wind. I'm chuckling just thinking about it now. Our place was nicely situated right across the road from the glow worm dell, so at about 9:30pm we walked across street and enjoyed the mesmerizing glow of the thousands of little stars for about 30 minutes. It's a small dell, but free, and since we weren't willing to pay the $75 to see the Te Anau glow worms, it was worth every penny.

Day 15: Fri 2/19

Our flight out of Christchurch was at 7pm, so we had all day to get across the island and see more sites. High tide at Punakaiki was at 9:20 this morning, so we decided to make an early morning run up there to see the blowholes. We left Hokitika at 8:15am and got there around 9:30am. It had already been raining on and off, but we managed to spend a good hour there without getting too wet. The blow holes were all going off, though not as spectacularly has we had hoped given the stormy weather and high tide, but certainly good enough to get some nice pictures and be satisfied with the side trip. At 10:30 we took off for Arthur's Pass, first stopping for lunch (meat pies) at the Kumara General Store and Cafe and then pulling off for the 20min round trip walk to Londonderry Rock. It was indeed a very massive boulder among some nice rainforest, but probably not worth the stop if you are pressed for time. We were not, so no loss.

The road through Arthur's pass was probably the worst maintained that we had driven on during the entire trip, and constant rain and multiple road construction stops made the trip longer than normal. This part of the trip was mostly washed out by the rain, as the Viaduct Overlook was missing the cheeky keas (though the view itself was still nice, even though I got soaked standing outside for a few minutes in a Chevy Chase Grand Canyon head-bobbing moment) we had read so much about, and we couldn't do any of the hikes around the visitor center. We did spend a good deal of time in the visitor center just to get out of the car and out of the rain. Just as well as the road delays got us to the Christchurch airport around 4:30pm, where we turned in the car to Hertz with no issues (and filled out paperwork to get reimbursed for the $35 tire fix) and went inside to reminisce on what an awesome trip it was. Farewell NZ, hopefully it won't be another 19 years before we get to visit again. Who knows, maybe the large multi-national semiconductor engineering company I work for will move operations to NZ.
paulg is offline  
Mar 4th, 2016, 07:02 AM
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Great report Paulg!

So glad you saw the sun on your Doutbtful trip and that you made it to the top of Lake Marian...we've never made it to the lake as we always seem to be there in wet weather, which makes the trail even more treacherous. And we're kinda old, lol.


Been there, done that, I feel your pain. My theory is that you can't truly appreciate the pretty days on the SI until you've experienced her wrath
Melnq8 is offline  
Mar 4th, 2016, 07:16 AM
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Thanks for sharing. I haven't had a chance to read through it all yet but your trip sounds quite good. Also appreciate the comparison between Milford and Doubtful.
tripplanner001 is offline  
Mar 4th, 2016, 06:15 PM
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Thanks melnq8! I appreciate all of the advice you gave during the early planning stages. The small 2-4 hour driving segments really worked out nicely. And yeah, Lake Marian was interesting. After we got back I read several hiking guides about that walk and none of them suggest that it's as challenging as we found it. So either we are also kinda old or they haven't actually made that hike.

I put the rain in perspective. We had no substantial rain for the first 12 days, and they were actually in a drought for about two weeks, so they were due. I figure we could have either had some rain spread out over the 15 days, or a ton of rain for just the three. I think this way worked out pretty well. And yes, it just means that we'll have to plan another return trip someday ... a trip in which Abel Tasman will be on the itinerary.
paulg is offline  
Mar 4th, 2016, 06:39 PM
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Paulg -

You may have noticed the differences in DOC track signage while you were there - Lake Marian is designated an Advanced Tramping Track.

I pay a lot more attention to the signage than I used to, and give a wide berth to anything with the advanced or route symbol, especially in less than ideal weather conditions. I learned the hard way, blew out my knee descending an unformed track in the Marlborough Sounds several years ago.

Melnq8 is offline  
Mar 4th, 2016, 06:56 PM
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That's a great link ... we hadn't looked at that prior to going. But I'm kind of glad I didn't look at it or maybe we wouldn't have taken that hike.
paulg is offline  
Mar 5th, 2016, 06:17 AM
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Would love to see your Lake Marian photos if you're willing to share. It's probably the only way I'll see it other than the tourist literature.
Melnq8 is offline  
Mar 5th, 2016, 09:37 AM
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Great report! Thanks for sharing.
aprillilacs is offline  
Mar 5th, 2016, 12:53 PM
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great report, paulg - thanks for taking the trouble for posting it.
annhig is offline  
Mar 5th, 2016, 02:34 PM
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Thanks, everyone. I hope you enjoyed it and maybe got some ideas for your next NZ trip, too. Melnq8, sure, I have no problem with that. I wonder how, though, as I don't use any online photo posting site.
paulg is offline  
Mar 5th, 2016, 02:40 PM
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Great report, paulg.

Lee Ann
ElendilPickle is offline  
Mar 31st, 2016, 05:21 AM
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Paulg -

Just saw your last post - I use Flickr these days, pretty easy to use (even for me).
Melnq8 is offline  
Apr 1st, 2016, 07:23 AM
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Is this a bookmark? Why, yes. Yes it is.

Thanks for posting, Paul. I'm definitely reading this later.
mr_go is offline  
Apr 4th, 2016, 05:00 PM
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Paulg, really appreciate your TR of NZ South Island. We enjoyed so many of the same experiences. . .Te Anau: Croft, Kepler Rest., Milford Sound Cruise. Rain set in, so no Doubtful Sound for us. Loved Glenorchy! We enjoyed Crown Range Road into Wanaka, and had so many other similar experiences. But we were not as adverturesome as you guys to do "rapelling into the canyon." Wow! What an experience!

We also received a lot of great suggestions from Melnq8, and did a lengthy report upon our return. Nice way to retain wonderful memories. Thanks for posting your experiences.
tomarkot is offline  
Apr 6th, 2016, 06:30 PM
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Melnq8, I'll see if I can get around to that Flickr stuff.

Enjoy the read, mr_go ... sorry if it's too long.

tomarkot, I agree that this trip report was more useful for me than probably anyone else reading it. Through all of our travels I've never really done one, and then rely on pictures and my old, tired brain to remember the experience. But this way I was really able to capture the tiny details that made an impression on me at the time, but that I probably wouldn't have remembered over the long run. I'll check out your report and compare experiences.
paulg is offline  
Apr 6th, 2016, 07:01 PM
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tomarkot, I just finished reading your 2012 NZ trip report. Very nice! You weren't kidding when you said we shared some similar experiences. I laughed pretty loudly when I read about the rain you experienced at Franz Josef and Lake Matheson. My wife agreed with your decision to give up the walk after the heavy rain started, but I'm still happy with the decision to get fully soaked.
paulg is offline  
Apr 10th, 2016, 10:29 AM
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Paulg, both of us couples seemed to go with the flow, as far as playing the weather in the SI, and that seemed to work toward great trips. Thanks for taking the time to post your TR and read ours. Happy Traveling!
tomarkot is offline  
Apr 10th, 2016, 11:35 AM
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Yes, you too. Up next for us is a week in Vancouver this June. Cheers!
paulg is offline  
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